Smiles keep her going
Emily Mercado was about to leave for the night when she took one more phone call.
The social ministries coordinator at the Lynn, Mass., Corps, was finishing up another exhausting and emotionally challenging week by helping people find food in the wake of COVID–19. This stressful Friday had begun even before this single mother with three children had left the house. She was anxious to get home to her family, but when the phone rings, she answers.
The caller was a teacher from the Lynn school district who explained that a student’s family had been adversely affected by the coronavirus. The father of the family was distraught and didn’t know where to turn. His wife and youngest daughter had tested positive for COVID and he had three other children to feed.
Emily wrote down their address but wondered how she would get the food to the family, given the late hour and the upcoming weekend.
“I talked to the Captains [Helen and Kevin Johnson] and asked, ‘Can I just drop it off?’ They told me I could,” Emily recalls.
Emily drove to the family’s home and dropped off three food boxes. As she left, the kids smiled and waved through a window.
“Ever since COVID–19 started, it’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but just being able to see the smiles and the kids’ faces was amazing,” Emily said. “The father looked at me with tears in his eyes and kept saying, ‘Thank you so much. Thank you so much. God bless you.’ It was touching. It was just really touching for me.
“I was going to go home to my family and be blessed by being able to eat dinner,” she said. “Knowing that there was a family out there in need, I said, ‘Why not drop the food off to them?’ They were so thankful.”
Emily’s motivation is clear—she sees herself in many of the people she helps and can relate to their life challenges. She recently went through a separation and her family was “bouncing from couch to couch.” Raising her oldest child has not always been easy.
“When people come in, I can actually say, ‘I’ve been in your shoes.’ I know what it’s like to have that moment where you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night. I know what it’s like to be homeless. I know what it’s like to not have food on the table. I know what it’s like to come from a broken home. I know what it’s like not to have Mom and Dad there 24/7. I’ve been there,” Emily said.
“It makes me stronger to help our community and to help families because I know what it’s like not to have that support and not to have those resources. I’ve been blessed here with the Army and with my officers being here and supporting me throughout this whole process. I feel like it’s where I need to be.”
Raised in Chelsea, Mass., Emily became the social ministries coordinator there seven years ago. She moved to Lynn three and a half years ago.
During COVID–19 she packed food boxes, distributed food, and did “a little bit of everything” to help the needy. She posted the following letter on social media after one particularly hard day:
“Today was one of the toughest days since COVID–19 at The Salvation Army. It was an amazing experience how an amazing group of volunteers got together and made it happen. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. We wouldn’t be able to do it without your help.
“Seeing how many families in our community are truly struggling to feed their families is very sad, but the most amazing feeling is being able to see a smile on their face receiving the food and just saying ‘thank you’ with tears in their eyes. It was a moment that brought us all together and made us stronger to continue. We are in this together. God is guiding us and giving us the strength daily to provide.”
Captain Helen Johnson said Emily faithfully came to work during the height of COVID–19, all the while concerned she might catch the virus herself.
“With the faith I have in God, I took it day by day,” Emily says. “I took every necessary precaution that I could, knowing that I was going home.”
“What motivated me more and more was every day someone would say, ‘Thank you so much for what you do. You just put a plate of food on my table for my family.’”
Before the COVID–19 outbreak, Emily was taking night classes to study social work. She loves the satisfaction of helping someone find an apartment, access to services, and improve their lives.
“I’m a people person,” she said. “I love helping families. I love kids. I love being a part of the community. Knowing I have the ability to help families and see them through makes me stronger to be honest.”
Johnson said Emily completed three classes to qualify her to run the after-school program at the corps, if needed.
Emily, who was raised in church, had also discussed returning to worship services before COVID–19 hit, but her complicated personal life had put that on hold.
Emily said Captain Helen Johnson had been talking to her girls about coming to the corps.
“When Captain Helen talks to them, they really listen,” Emily said of her kids. “The officers have been such an amazing part of helping us through all the hard times I’ve had with my kids.
“God is in my heart and I really want to start going. Once COVID is gone and everything, that’s my next step. I have faith in God that regardless of everything I’m going through, God is guiding me and watching over me and my kids and things will get better.”
On those tough days, Emily said she remembers that Friday when she took the late call. She calls it a “really, really emotional breakdown day,” but one that gives her strength.
“That kind of opened my eyes and I said, ‘This is the reason I’m here.’ It motivates me to just continue on in this career path and show my kids why I’m doing what I do. I have faith that even though I have my own personal struggles, this whole experience has just made me stronger and able to believe in myself.
by Robert Mitchell